How did it ever happen?

Reading, I mean…

When you think of what it used to take to put type on paper, it’s a wonder reading ever got to be such a mainstream activity.

It’s so easy for us. We type words on a keyboard, they magically appear on screen, we choose the typeface we’d like (within limits – which needs to change) and we’re done.

Back in the Gutenberg days, you had to hand-cut a steel punch in the shape and style of the letter you wanted. That hard-metal punch was used to punch an impression of the letter in a softer metal, brass, which was then used as a mold to cast a final impression of the letter in an even softer metal, an alloy of lead, antimony and tin called “Printer’s Metal”. The punch was cut in the reverse shape of the letter, so the mold would be in the shape of the letter, so the casting would be reversed, so the impression you got when you put ink on it and pressed paper onto it would be the right way round… Whew!

Don’t even get me started on the technology of the printing press, ink, paper and bookbinding.

Those early punchcutters were both artists and craftsmen. One of the last survivors of that “Old School” is world-renowned type designer Matthew Carter, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on a few occasions on major projects (he designed Verdana and Georgia for us at Microsoft, and was also involved in the design of the new Japanese typeface, Meiryo, which shipped in Windows Vista and Office 2007).

Although it might seem an arcane skill with little use in the modern world, those old punchcutters knew a thing or two about how to make letters both beautiful and readable, and how letters would work together.

There’s a fascinating book: Counterpunch: Making Type in the 16th Century, Designing Typefaces Now, by the type designer Fred Smeijers, which is a great read if you want to learn some lessons which still apply today.

For a short bio of Fred Smeijers, visit:

You’ll find a link to the book in the Amazon widget on the right.


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